The Origins and Development of Venice’s Forma Urbis

The origins of Venice proper date to approximately 810 AD, when the Doge’s capital was first temporarily and then permanently moved from Malamocco (on today’s Lido, i.e. on a barrier island separating the lagoon from the Adriatic Sea) to the Rivo Alto islands in the safer central part of the Lagoon .


The shape of the city (forma urbis) was initially dictated by the distribution of islets around a main tidal channel, which was to become the Grand Canal (red islands in Figure 1). Smaller channels, branching off the main trunk, separated these natural sandbars from one another. These channels were the ancestors of today’s canals that criss-cross the city (blue, in Figure 1).
Starting from these naturally occurring grassy islands (barene), the city of Venice began to develop with the gradual reclaiming of land from the waters between islands, which were thus incrementally brought closer and closer to each other until only small canals separated them. New islands were created with the mud dredged from existing channels and the city eventually acquired the fish-like shape that it retains to this day , molded around the Grand Canal around which it all started. This sort of “wharfing out” process, not unlike what happened around the Boston waterfront and in the Back Bay, was piecemeal, but guided by primitive forms of “planning” in the form of Ducal edicts, grants, permits and prescriptions. Already in 811 AD, the very first Doge in the new Rialto headquarters, Agnello Partecipazio, had established a special Magistrate “to oversee the enlargement and the “design” of the island of Rialto, to supervise the proper reclamation and embankment of sandbars and marshes nearby, and to fortify and protect the lidi from the impetus of the sea” .
Today, Venice is composed of about 120 islands, separated by about 200 canals and connected by about 450 bridges. The fortuitous beginnings of the city, which was initially just a loose “federation” of small island villages, created an imprint that had a lasting impact on future urban development and may very well have indirectly influenced its civic and political organization as well.

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